July 7th is Global Forgiveness Day. It’s an excellent time to reflect on the importance of forgiveness and what forgiveness means to you. Forgiveness can be a difficult concept for many of us. It may feel like forgiving someone means we’re giving them permission to behave badly, and they don’t deserve our forgiveness.
In fact, forgiveness simply refers to letting go of negative or painful emotions about a person who has hurt you. It doesn’t mean you’re condoning their behavior. Sometimes it may be appropriate to stop having contact with a person because of their hurtful actions. Regardless of whether or not the person is currently in your life, you can still forgive them.
Forgiveness helps rid you of painful emotions you may be carrying, which is a benefit in itself. But letting go of feelings of resentment, anger or judgement towards others has also been shown to have a wide range of other health benefits.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF FORGIVENESS
1. Boosts Immune System
Forgiveness has been shown to enhance the production of antibodies, which increases the effectiveness of your immune system. Forgiveness can also help reduce the amount of adrenaline and cortisol your body releases. These two hormones are known to lower your production of natural killer cells, which in turn will suppress your immune system. Whereas, studies on HIV patients found that those who went through a process of forgiveness had higher levels of immune cells and improved immunity.
2. Strengthens Relationships
Research has discovered that forgiveness works in a variety of ways to promote happier, healthier relationships. It reduces the tendency to retaliate against someone who has hurt you and replaces that with a sense of empathy and understanding towards others. It’s been shown that this attitude of forgiveness promotes stronger, longer-lasting and more supportive relationships. And the outcome of relationships that foster forgiveness is a greater sense of wellbeing and happiness in life.
3. Improves Sleep
Improved sleep quality has been linked to forgiveness. You’ve likely experienced this yourself – have you ever been kept awake by angry thoughts towards another person? This is nothing to beat yourself up about, but the sooner you can let go of the anger and resentment you feel towards that person, the faster you can start sleeping soundly again.
4. Lightens Your Load Physically
Two studies from Erasmus University investigated how forgiveness can change your physical perceptions and abilities. In both studies, participants were asked to write about a time they could either forgive, or not forgive, someone who had hurt them.
The first study brought the participants to the base of a hill and asked them to estimate its steepness. The forgiving group perceived the hill to be less steep than those who could not forgive. The second study asked participants to jump in place five times. On average, those who had written about forgiveness jumped higher than those who lacked forgiveness.
These studies show that forgiveness can actually change how we perceive physical challenges, such as going up a hill. And we may be able to physically perform better when we lighten our emotional load by forgiving others.
5. Helps Trauma Recovery
Research by Dr. Fred Luskin, director and cofounder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, found that forgiveness can even help recovery from severely traumatic events. He surveyed adults from Northern Ireland who had lost family members to the violent conflicts in that area. He found that people who were taught to forgive became less angry and stressed overall. They also gained more optimism, compassion and self-confidence.
6. Supports Heart Health
An attitude of forgiveness has been shown to reduce blood pressure and heart rate. Forgiveness is also linked to a greater release of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love hormone” because it enhances many positive emotions and strengthens social bonding. But part of oxytocin’s feel-good action includes lowering blood pressure and heart rate. This could be one reason why forgiveness gives your heart a boost, both physically and emotionally.
7. Improves Cognitive Function
Researchers have also examined the effects of forgiveness on the brain. When someone is feeling forgiving, brain scans reveal higher activity in the frontal lobe of the brain. Among other things, this area of the brain is responsible for problem-solving and morality, as well as higher functions of thinking and reasoning.
Whereas, a University of Pisa study found that emotions such as anger and vengeance inhibit rational thinking and increase activity in the amygdala, which is the area in your brain responsible for the “flight or fight” response.
TIPS ON PRACTICING FORGIVENESS
1. Keep It Real
Many studies have highlighted the importance of practicing forgiveness from your heart, not your head. For instance, research has found that conditional forgiveness is linked to a higher risk of early death. Conditional forgiveness refers to expecting something from a person before you forgive them, such as an apology or compensation.
Interestingly, the same study found that believing in a forgiving God also did not improve your longevity. It appears that as long as you view forgiveness as something outside of yourself, you won’t get the benefits. Forgiveness needs to come from within.
Another study compared those who logically decided to forgive to those who worked on forgiveness from an emotional level. Those who emotionally forgave others had distinct psychophysiological changes as well as greater benefits to health and wellbeing compared to those who approached forgiveness mentally.
2. Do It Regularly
Forgiveness isn’t a one-time action. A lifetime of cultivating forgiveness will bring the most benefits. Try doing this brief forgiveness exercise each day:
- Bring to mind a person who offended or hurt you.
- Sit with the feelings this brings up for a few moments, but then bring awareness to the fact this event was in the past. There is nothing you can do now to change what happened.
- Do your best to embrace what you learned from the situation and let go of the rest.
- Commit to moving forward today without the emotional baggage left by a past event you cannot change.
This is a great exercise to do before bed to help clear your mind for a peaceful sleep.